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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: Pittsburgh: A Big Happy Company Town

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Pittsburgh: A Big Happy Company Town

Jeff Swensen for The New York Times
Lou Bosser, a partner in the sandwich shop Peppi's in Pittsburgh, with a carb-laden Roethlisburger.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
The rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 15-1 record.

January 12, 2005
Pittsburgh: A Big Happy Company Town

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 10 - The playoffs for Pittsburgh begin here Saturday against the Jets, as the red and green of Christmas gives way to the black and gold of the Steelers. Even mannequins at the Satin and Lace lingerie shop are decked out in Terrible Towels.

"A couple of women thought they were aprons and men think they're nighties," Patty Pearce, the shop's owner, said of the towels that fans have long waved at Steelers games. "That shows you where the mind is at. Of course, my business is based on where men's minds are."

Roethlisburgers are going for $7 at Peppi's, a pricey homage to the rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his jersey number. And there appear to be more songs dedicated to the Steelers than to trains and rivers.

"There must be 20 of them, one worse than the other," said Gene Collier, co-author of a play about Art Rooney, the Steelers' founder. "What is it about the Steelers' success that makes people say, 'Where's my kazoo?' "

A magnificent 15-1 season, latticed with 14 consecutive victories, has tightened the resilient bond between the Steelers and this appealing but frayed city of immigrants. It is an attachment of civic identity, loyalty, perseverance and nostalgia for the glory days of the 1970's, when the Steelers won four Super Bowls as the steel industry crumbled.

"Pittsburgh is a throwback town," said Wallace Miller, a Steelers fan and the coroner of Somerset County, Pa., which is east of Pittsburgh. "You see people walking around in Jack Lambert and Jack Ham jerseys. And that was 30 years ago."

But wistfulness does not fully explain the relationship between Pittsburgh and the Steelers. The team is of the city, not merely in the city. It emerged from the sandlots of the north side and was purchased for $2,500 in 1933 by Rooney. The Rooney family still owns the Steelers and has fashioned them in the family's unpretentious image.

Dan Rooney, the team chairman, walks from home to each game. The Steelerettes were retired in 1970 as the Rooneys wearied of the ostentation of cheerleaders. The team's jut-jawed coach, Bill Cowher, and his reliance on running the ball and punishing defense, evoke qualities the fans see in themselves as hardworking, blunt, durable.

"In Pittsburgh, you're either a tough guy or you're not," Marc Mrvos, a distributor of medical supplies, said. "With the Steelers, things remain the same. I'm 35. In all my life, they've had two coaches."

The Rooneys have provided fidelity, committing to Pittsburgh while Westinghouse, Rockwell International, Gulf Oil, Mesta Machine, J&L Steel and U.S. Steel reduced or ceased operations, said Rob Ruck, a history lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh who is co-writing a biography of Art Rooney.

A city once defined by steel is now defined by sports, he said. Expectations demand victory. From 1960 through 1992, the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins won all nine championship games or series in which they participated, while Pitt also won a national collegiate football title.

"It's a divided city, not just by race and class and ethnicity, but by geography and topography, by hilltops and river valleys," Ruck said. "What unifies Pittsburgh more than anything are sports. Of any sport, it is the Steelers."

Even though Pittsburgh has diversified, and the Steelers reflect this resourcefulness, in many ways the city represents America in a rear-view mirror. The region lost 158,000 manufacturing jobs and 289,000 residents between 1970 and 1990, according to Carnegie Mellon University.

Currently, the city faces a deep financial crisis, the N.H.L. players are locked out and the Pirates struggle to maintain relevance against teams in bigger markets, with deeper pockets.

In these impecunious times, the Steelers provide a black-ink balance to a city that has suffered too much red in the ledger, said Andy Kelly, 68, a retired account executive for CSX railroad.

"We were the industrial center of the universe," he said. "Now we're in the dumps. The Steelers show we're alive, a major city, still a force."

He spoke over a beer at Chiodo's Tavern, a local institution once situated near the front gates of the immense Homestead Works of U.S. Steel.

The mills along the Monongahela River are long closed, replaced by university research buildings and the shops, the restaurants and the movie theaters of brand-name commerce. Chiodo's is as much a museum as a bar, with photographs of the Steelers dating to 1933, when they were founded as the Pirates.

"They are the city of Pittsburgh," Bob Clark, 53, a hospital purchasing manager, said of the team.

Tony Novosel, 52, a bartender at Chiodo's and an academic adviser and history teacher at Pitt, said that passion for the Steelers reminded him of passion for European soccer, where the local team is considered "immediate family."

Mrvos, the medical supplies distributor, has the Steelers' logo on his cellular phone and a likeness of goal posts inlaid in the wall of his entertainment room. On game days, he decorates the goal posts with yellow ribbon. He knows of a guy with a black-and-gold car, and of another guy with the names of Steelers greats tattooed on his back.

Dr. Rodney Landreneau, a thoracic surgeon, understands football obsession. He grew up in south Louisiana, and his father showed Louisiana State game films at Cub Scout meetings.

"Here it's crazier," Landreneau said. "At L.S.U., it's still sport. Here, it's live or die."

Several weeks ago, a patient arrived for an appointment wearing a Steelers jacket, a Steelers necklace, a Steelers pinkie ring and a Steelers watch.

"I had to tell him he had lung cancer, but all he worried about was whether the Steelers would win the next week," Landreneau said.

Fondness for the team springs from great affection for Art Rooney, its patriarch, who died in 1988. He stuck by his Steelers although they needed 40 years to win a division title.

A charming rogue, Rooney was a semipro football player, an Olympic-caliber boxer, a horse player who counted among his friends priests and racketeers, and a man who valued honesty, loyalty and patient respect for others, Ruck said.

Rooney also loved to attend wakes, said Collier, a columnist for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who co-wrote the one-man play about the Steelers' founder called "The Chief."

Upon the death of his wife, Kathleen, Rooney attended the viewing of another man at the same funeral home. The man had died leaving virtually no family, Collier said, so Rooney took flowers intended for his wife and placed them near the man's coffin.

Rooney also signed the man's guest book, as did some of the Steelers, Collier said. "A night or so later, another relative of the man showed up and said, 'Dad knew Lynn Swann and Franco Harris?' " Collier said.

The play, co-written with Rob Zellers, ended its second run last month and became the most popular production in the 30-year history of Pittsburgh's Public Theater, said Ted Pappas, the theater's executive director.

"The team and play triggered what's best in this city - a sense of community, pulling through when the going gets tough, the old values of family, friendship, loyalty," Pappas said.

Not everyone has warm and fuzzy feelings. Some Steelers fans complain about vulgar behavior by ticket holders. Others grew upset about seating when the team moved from Three Rivers Stadium to Heinz Field in 2001.

"I feel betrayed," said Joe Chiodo, 86, owner of Chiodo's Tavern and a longtime season-ticket holder who said he stopped attending games because his seats were moved from the 38-yard line to "peanut heaven" in the end zone.

"I hope they lose every game," Chiodo said.

In November, nine season-ticket holders sued the Steelers over expected discounts in their upper-deck seats. A similar suit, filed in 2001 by fans who felt misled by a season-ticket brochure, was dismissed by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court last July.

William Helzlsouer, a lawyer who filed both ticket lawsuits, and an antitrust lawsuit regarding public financing of stadiums, said some ticket holders were paying $1,000 a season more than expected, an amount that could be worth $20 million to $30 million to the Rooneys over the life of Heinz Field.

"It's a bait and switch," Helzlsouer said.

The team has said it treats fans equitably and that it believes the lawsuits have no merit.

Legal issues aside, the Steelers have no trouble drawing fans at home or on the road. An estimated 20,000 Steelers supporters attended a game this season in Jacksonville, Fla., which will play host to next month's Super Bowl.

For displaced Pittsburghers, who left in pursuit of work no longer available here, the Steelers hold a particular resonance, Vic Ketchman, 53, said. He left at 44 and is senior editor of the Jacksonville Jaguars' team Web site.

"Iron City beer had a slogan, 'It tastes like coming home,' " Ketchman said. "That's what the Steelers are, like coming home."

This helps explain the popularity of running back Jerome Bettis, who accepted a pay cut to remain in Pittsburgh this season and rejuvenated his career.

"He did what most Pittsburghers wish they could do - stay here," said Novosel, the former mill worker who tends bar at Chiodo's and teaches at Pitt.

The Steelers also represent another sentimental longing, Ketchman said, apologizing if he sounded like a "hopeless romantic."

"They are the team for all the ones who like the old things," he said. "For all of us who don't want fast food, who don't want to live in a new bedroom community and pay association fees, who don't want progress forced upon us. Pittsburgh is an old place. It feels just right."


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